In East Haven, mixed reaction to top cop retirement
East Haven — At a news conference Monday morning at town hall, Mayor Joseph Maturo announced that Chief of Police Leonard Gallo — named in an ongoing federal investigation of discriminatory policing — would retire at the end of the week.
“His decision to retire at this time is a selfless act, designed to assist in the healing process,” Maturo said briefly, before stepping back into his office and shutting the door behind him.
East Haven has made national and international news in the past week as the result of a federal probe into allegations of racial profiling and harassment of the town’s Latino residents. Four police officers were arrested as a result of the investigation.
As dozens of members of the media crowded a hall outside the mayor’s office, some 50 feet away, residents waiting in line to see the city clerk had mixed reactions to the most recent uproar in their town.
Holding a tax statement, 79-year-old Ferdinando Cerrato expressed support of the chief.
“I think the police are right — they’ve been arresting the wrong people,” Cerrato said. “It’s the immigrants that should be arrested and deported.”
“This whole thing has been a shame, an embarrassment. This is not what East Haven is about.” said Cynthia Esposito, who said she grew up in the city. “The chief and the mayor both need to resign.”
Money transfers, phone cards and harassment
A few blocks from Town Hall, store owner Manuel Matute sold a few phone cards to customers, and reacted with measured optimism to the news.
“Yeah, you know, people are recognizing that justice is happening here,” he said. “But they’re waiting to see what happens before they feel safer.”
Matute, 45, is the owner of Orient Express. The past few years, he said, have been a nightmare.
“Before the last two or three years, I’d never seen anything like this,” he said. “We’ve been looking for help and some relief, from anyone. It’s been a tough time.”
The Orient Express and nearby shop My Country Store, both owned by Matute’s family, are among a number of Ecuadorian-owned businesses whose proprietors say they’ve been regularly harassed by a few East Haven police officers.
On Main Street, not far from town hall, My Country Store owner Wilfredo Matute and his wife Marcia Chacon welcomed a trickle of customers to their shop, stocked with candles, snacks and phone cards. Within 30 minutes, three TV crews stopped by, looking for interviews.
“We probably lost 80 percent of our customers in the last few years,” Chacon said. “Everybody was scared to come to East Haven.”
People used to visit My Country Store regularly to transfer money and send packages back to their families in Ecuador, she said. But for the past three years, business has been slow. In fact, the couple says they had to downsize by half and could no longer afford to pay the rent.
“This is one of these things that really impacts business owners,” said Raul Erazo Velarde of the Consulate General of Ecuador in New Haven. “And we see how they’ve suffered at the hands of this harassment.”
Velarde, making the rounds to six Ecuadorian businesses Monday afternoon, said intimidation by members of the police department had the Ecuadorian community scared to visit certain stores.
According to the federal indictment, police Sgt. John Miller and Officers Dennis Spaulding, Jason Zullo and David Cari allegedly “conspired to injure, oppress, threaten and intimidate various members of the East Haven community in violation of their Constitutional rights.”
The indictment alleges more than 30 “overt” acts by the four arrested officers and their “co-conspirators,” including excessive use of force and unreasonable search and seizure.
At Orient Express, Matute said, one officer in particular would show up regularly, demanding paperwork for cars parked outside his shop. If the owner wasn’t on hand, Matute said, they’d have the car towed.
“People didn’t want to come to the shop anymore,” he said. “They didn’t want any problems, so they started to drift away.”
But a couple of months ago, Matute and Chacon confirmed, things started to get better. Seeing customers slowly begin to return, they expanded their store to its original size. The regained half of the store still feels a bit empty, but some shelves are stocked with beans, rice and sauces. And Chacon said they plan to sell fresh produce and meats.
Fire or Retire?
Back at Town Hall, Gallo’s attorney, Jonathan J. Einhorn, read a statement on behalf of the embattled chief, who did not attend the news conference.
“Chief Gallo has never engaged in, participated in, or condoned, racial profiling of any nature whatsoever,” Einhorn said. “He should not be arrested, and if arrested, he will be acquitted of any charges.”
Einhorn confirmed that “Co-Conspirator-1” in the federal indictment refers to Gallo.
“We’re happy he’s going,” said East Haven Police Commissioner Jim Krebs, of Gallo. “If you’ve broken the law, there have to be consequences.”
Krebs, whose three-year term ends Tuesday, said that the commission regularly went head- to-head with Gallo and other police officers.
“Gallo was not cooperative with the board,” he said. “He told us several times that he doesn’t report to us, though state statute says otherwise.”
The Police Commission plans to vote Tuesday on whether Maturo should fire Gallo or allow him to retire and collect his pension.
Maturo himself has faced a barrage of criticism for his handling of the federal probe, including his comment last week that he “might have tacos” as a way to support the Latino community in the wake of the investigation.
Between television interviews, My Country Store owners Chacon and Matute had nothing to say about the status of East Haven’s leaders.
“We just want our customers back, we want to run our business,” Chacon said. “We don’t have anything against the police department. We’re just looking for peace.”
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